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Innovative coffee shops are bringing late-night cafe culture to the UK

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LONDON – Aside from the odd after dinner espresso, coffee drinking has always been a daytime pursuit in Britain. But a new wave of cafes across the country are showing that there’s room (and demand) for late-night coffee bars and all-day tea houses.

Cultivating a late-night cafe culture

Over the last few years, late-night cafe culture – which is the norm in many cosmopolitan European cities – has started to filter down into the UK’s coffee scene.

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In London, places like Clerkenwell Grind (PICTURE) and Bernstein’s have shown that the all-day cafe is not only something that works, but it’s popular too.

Further north, Edinburgh’s Brew Lab cafe recently launched late night opening, providing a coffee shop-bar hybrid open until 9pm five nights a week

“It was something we had been thinking about since before we even opened Brew Lab,” says Brew Lab co-founder, Dave Law.

“I suppose there’s some inspiration from European cafe culture, but its more about offering a space between a bar and a cafe that offers a wide range of carefully curated and high quality products.”

Law assumed that the alcoholic offerings (craft beers, natural wines and cocktails) would take over during the evenings, but was surprised by how popular coffee-drinking remained.

“We’re also offering a range of coffee-based cocktails (made using our cold brew coffee) so that certainly offers a different way to drink coffee in the evening,” he adds.

Sheffield-based Tamper Coffee operate a similar Friday night after hours service, with gourmet food, craft beers and cocktails on offer as well as coffee. Owner, Jonathan Perry, took inspiration from his home country of New Zealand when expanding the coffee shop’s offering.

“Daytime and nighttime cafe-bistros are a big thing back home, and if you have the space and audience to deliver it, then why not?” Perry explains.

The idea for Friday After:Hours came about after Tamper Coffee held several one-off bistro evenings which were a huge success, and allowed the team to showcase a different side of the business. For Perry, being able to provide something different for customers is also an important way to make sure his staff are passionate about what they do.

“It gives our kitchen staff some variety to their day-to-day routine. It gets them excited, which is hugely important to us as a business.”

An alternative to the pub

It’s not just coffee shops which are noticing the need for late night openings. Tea houses, like Quilliam Brothers in Newcastle, are getting in on the action too, with later opening hours, evening menus and even speciality services.

After returning from a trip to Budapest, where all-night tea houses were an established alternative to going out boozing, the three Quilliam brothers quickly realised that the UK had little to offer on this front.

“Coming back to Newcastle, we realised how ridiculous it was that there wasn’t anywhere open after 6pm to get a cup of tea, except for a pub or bar where (if you aren’t drinking) it can be intimidating and often anti-social,” explains co-founder Patrick Quilliam.

The cafe also houses a gallery and cinema space, allowing people to socialise over a cup of tea no matter the time of day. Not all businesses have found success in simply opening later, however.

Glasgow-based Cup Tea Rooms experimented with opening until 11pm, but found that the demand just wasn’t there. Operating under the same parent company, they launched a new business, Gin 71.

Although they are two completely separate businesses, they occupy the same space – once Cup closes at 5pm, there’s a quick transformation and the same premises reopens as the bar Gin 71.

“Ultimately we realised that in order to make an impact on the evening trade, we needed something distinctly different to Cup,” explains Sophie Aire from Cup. Standing out from the crowd Is this new trend of later opening hours and evening menus necessary for a cafe to stand out these days? The answer is both yes and no.

“It’s becoming a very crowded market place, but coffee shops are very localised. Customers will go to their local, favourite coffee shop,” says Law. “But, within your small locality, I think it’s important to continue to innovate and offer something that can ensure people keep coming after the usual daytime coffee shop opening hours.”

Patrick Quilliam agrees, noting that it’s the quality of the products and service which really matter, but having something different does help to give the businesses an edge over competitors.

“The cinema, gallery and late opening hours have helped in shaping the atmosphere of the place. These little bonuses secure a place in people’s memories and affection, but aren’t necessary to stand out.”

Gillian McDonald